In-House Reviews: The Witches, Borat, AFI Fest, Memories of Murder & More!

Aaron Neuwirth has reviews for The Witches, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, David Byrne’s American Utopia, a retro review for the re-release of Memories of Murder, and a round of up thoughts concerning films from AFI Fest.

Another wild week of releases, with October doing what it can to provide films for the horror crowd, as well as kids, and those looking for some more prestigious releases. Of course, there’s also Sacha Baron Cohen up to his old tricks as well for a good dose of shock humor. So yes, there are plenty of options out there. That in mind, this week’s write-ups include a new take on a children’s tale, a Borat sequel, the intriguing mix of Spike Lee and David Byrne, an early masterwork from Bong Joon-ho, and more. The following features reviews for The Witches, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, David Byrne’s American Utopia, a retro review for the re-release of Memories of Murder, and a round of up thoughts concerning films from AFI Fest.

The Witches: 6 out of 10

The Setup:  Based on the children’s dark fantasy novel by Roald Dahl, this updated take on the story is now set in 1960s Alabama, where an orphaned young boy (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno) is informed by his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) that witches are real and they are coming. To deal with a sickness, the two stay at a hotel, which coincidentally happens to be the same place a conference of witches is taking place, headed by the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway). Unfortunately for the boy, these witches are putting together a scheme to get rid of all children.

Review: Just a few months ago, I watched 1990’s The Witches for the first time in a while. It was a great example of a film geared towards children that didn’t hold back from the inherent creepiness. My greatest hope for this new adaptation directed by Robert Zemeckis was to see the special effects-friendly director use his skills to deliver a film that also embraced the scariness that comes with this kid-centric adventure. The results are a bit mixed.

I would like to think the presence of Guillermo del Toro and Kenya Barris as co-writers on this screenplay added some extra layers as far as the darkness baked into the story, let alone the subtext that comes from recasting the heroes as black characters. However, outside of a few changes and modern special effects wizardry, there’s only so much to admire about this new take on The Witches. It’s adequate, and that’s all well and good, but when you have the previous take on the film easily available to watch as well, there’s just not much need for this film.

At least the actors came to have a good time. Spencer may be closing in on the point of self-parody with her warm-hearted motherly roles, but it’s an energy quite welcome for this film. It is also fortunate to see such a find in young Bruno, has a reliable amount of pluck to make him an enjoyable young character. Of course, the most attention will and should go to Hathaway, relishing in the opportunity to big in a role that would always be a tough act to follow, after seeing the work Angelica Huston put in. She does not disappoint.

A lot of the fun of this film comes from the visual depiction of witches. Staying true to the text, these are demonic creatures with claws and every opportunity to be a deadly threat. In particular, Hathaway’s Grand High Witch has a snake-like mouth and limbs that can stretch, which could surely frighten the right young viewers looking for a scare.

With all the latest and greatest technology of today, it’s no surprise to see Zemeckis use all that’s at his disposal to deliver a film that one could have easily seen being a big 3D presentation for theaters. In particular, once our main character goes through a certain transformation, Zemeckis clearly gets a lot out of pushing his camera through tighter spaces in clever ways in an attempt to emphasize a sense of wonder. That said, while not entirely fair to compare this film to the former, one can’t help but feel a lack of weight when trying to feel the danger in these digital creations, compared to the creepy makeup designs and puppet effects used for the 1990 film.

Again, there’s an entertaining film here. Between the quick release and the existence of a terrific previous adaptation, The Witches may not hold as much drawing power, but it’s quite well made when considering the amount of effort Zemeckis puts into his projects. Not hurting are the very big performances that perfectly capture the spirit of a Dahl world. Always helpful, dealing with zany characters, be they children, twits, or snake-faced witches.

Where To Watch: Available to stream on HBO Max October 22, 2020.

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan:  5 out of 10

The Setup: Fourteen years after the release of Borat, Kazakhstan’s naïve reporter, Borat Sagdiyev (Sacha Baron Cohen), is put on a special assignment to return to America with a gift he’s meant to give to the country’s most powerful men. The unexpected arrival of Borat’s daughter (Maria Bakalova), however, complicates the matter, forcing him to deal with what he believes to be true about women, in addition to new truths regarding American culture and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Review: When attempting to explain the quality of a comedy, considering how subjective humor can be is always going to create something of a barrier. Yes, one can express admiration for the quality of production, the actors’ effort, and the writing. Of course, the question of, “Is this funny?” is going to be a major factor as well, especially when looking at something broad, slapstick-heavy, or, in the case of Cohen and his characters, shocking.

I enjoyed 2006’s Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan well enough. While I only saw the film once, there was enough in both the shock value and the attempts to capture a certain kind of attitude reflecting some of American culture to make for an interesting social experiment. There’s also the fearlessness of Cohen, who threw himself into insane situations with real people, achieving a result that would not be forgotten.

That’s certainly part of the challenge in making a Borat sequel, as his fans know him too well. That said, thanks to a series of ridiculous disguises and the nature of a year that has limited the presence of public populations, there is some fun seeing these antics on display once again. I could even argue the narrative throughline is more successful, as Borat has an arc regarding a daughter that is about as predictable as the previous film but at least adds some relevant commentary as far as the roles of women are concerned. It also adds a layer of heart, which is especially useful given how clear it seems the pandemic changed plans Cohen may have originally had for the film.

Of course, it’s the idea of making the Borat character somehow seem fresh that can only carry this film so far. At this point, anyone familiar with Borat knows how various scenes will play out. Borat (and now his daughter) will arrive at a location, generally leaning hard on the side of conservatives, act like an exaggerated version of an ignorant person that happens to be foreign, and pave the way for honest reactions from polite tolerance to oblivious racism.

That in mind, Borat sets his sights on capturing some major names on camera this time around, and while the proceedings go about how one would expect and elicit some genuine laughs, I couldn’t help but feel a wavering indifference to a lot of what was on screen. Part of it comes from some of the ‘targets’ seeming too harmless to allow for bigger laughs. The other part is just how far reality has sunken in the case of some of the people, and Borat’s addition doesn’t make those individuals seem any more ridiculous, as opposed to just plain sad.

Where To Watch: Available to stream on Amazon Prime Video October 23, 2020.

David Byrne’s American Utopia: 9 out of 10

The Setup: Director Spike Lee presents a filmed version of the Broadway performance of American Utopia by David Byrne. The show features Byrne and 11 musicians on stage, performing the songs from Byrne’s albums, with Byrne providing additional perspective concerning his thoughts on culture and today’s reality.

Review: In 1984, director Jonathan Demme filmed Stop Making Sense, the Talking Heads concert film that has pretty much served as the best example of a concert film ever made. Leave it to Spike Lee to come along and handle the filming of David Byrne’s American Utopia, and deliver something that is not only on par with the former concert film but adds a level of relevant messaging, in addition to triumphant joy when seeing all that’s accomplished in this 105-minute spectacle.

Sadly, I have not seen American Utopia live on stage. However, I have seen several cinematic presentations of filmed shows and have enough of an idea of what to generally expect from them. It’s of no surprise to me to see Lee finding all the right ways to create visual energy through the use of multiple cameras to capture two different performances and edit them together in a manner that I’m sure preserves the exact spirit of the show.

Being no stranger to documentaries (4 Little Girls is just one of his great achievements) or concert films, Lee shows off what an artist he is in his choices to reflect the mood of certain songs, the angles of certain reveals, and the totality of the stage. American Utopia is a fairly stripped-down affair, with Byrne and his band on an empty stage wearing grey suits (and no shoes). Finding ways to use the color and lighting to a film’s advantage means Lee has more than enough to create a lot out of a little.

Speaking to the show, Byrne’s well-received Broadway adaptation of his album presents a modified version of it that speaks to American values through honesty, satire, and important understandings. This is very much a work that wants to evoke certain feelings speaking to the acceptance of what America is about. That includes very good things, as well as the unfortunate ones. Late in the film, the cover performance of a Janelle Monae song builds to the naming of various black lives lost to police officers and figures of authority who went too far. While one can draw parallels between Lee and Byrne, it is here where one can tell easily where his touch shines through the brightest.

At the same time, there is a lot of dazzling brightness to find throughout this feature, as we watch so many happy faces on screen, letting the choreography create a perfect rhythm balancing the political urgency of the times with an unbridled joy that can’t be missed. By the end of this show, we see the performers congratulating each other on a job well done, and Byrne has the perfect ending moment to go out on. His choice to tackle difficult subjects yet still rely on a sense of hope is felt, and his sign off is not a goodbye but instead a very appropriate, “See you next time.”

Where To Watch: Now available to watch through HBO and stream through HBO Max.

Retro Review: Memories of Murder: 9 out of 10

The Setup: Director Bong Joon-ho’s crime drama loosely based around the true story of Korea’s first serial murders, taking place between 1986 and 1991. Song Kang-ho and Kim Sang-kyun star as two detectives trying to solve the crimes, balancing their different skills and mindsets while grappling with the heavy toll these murders take on them.

Review: Here’s a fun fact: Parasite won Best Picture and three other Oscars this year. Wild, right? Another fun fact – that’s just one of several incredible films directed by the Academy Award-winning director. Much like the elusive killer in this film (and in real life), Memories of Murder has sadly not been widely available, but that has changed. Whether or not people had a chance to recently see the film, this 2003 effort is a great reminder of Bong’s talent from early on, let alone a great crime drama layered with dark comedy.

Not unlike the films of David Fincher (with Zodiac becoming a very fitting companion film four years later), Memories of Murder accomplishes so much without relying on the grisly murders of innocent women. While horrific, we discover things after the fact, with lots of time committed to the police working on theories and suspects. Not unlike the films from Asghar Farhadi, while set in the past, there’s still a sense of understanding how culture differs from my perspective that only adds to the complications of such a difficult case to solve.

As a result, due to the limits of the time, watching the struggles of these detectives to have adequate means to go after a killer allows for many frustrating moments, some humorous ones, and a lot of tension in the relationships forming between certain characters. This is very much a film about the feeling of defeat and reckoning with a lack of ability to save lives. True to form, Bong does everything needed to convey so much throughout this story.

Inspired by the true story of these murders and Alan Moore’s From Hell, the film is rich with detail. Using real locations and letting the environments factor into how characters can move around and react goes a long way in maintaining a certain mood that feels authentic yet stylized to a point. The use of slow-motion and specific color choices makes the viewer aware of what’s important at all times, along with subtle hints to cue certain feelings. This movie was designed from the ground up, and the rewards are just so evident throughout.

For a stunning mystery that presents violent crimes in a manner aided by quality filmmaking, Memories of Murder easily sits alongside the best of the genre. That Bong would go on from here to make more equally terrific films speaks to his abilities as a writer/director, let alone just how much good company he keeps around him.

Where To Watch: Following a recent limited theatrical engagement, the film will be available on VOD October 27, 2020.

Bonus: AFI Fest 2020 Roundup

Much like with TIFF 2020, I’ve been able to see several films that screened virtually out of AFI Fest 2020 this past week. In addition to my full review for The Boy Behind The Door, here are some brief thoughts on some other notable features.

I’m Your Woman

Director/co-writer Julia Hart’s crime drama starring Rachel Brosnahan is a stylish display of tension and self-realization. Brosnahan stars as Jean, a woman forced to go on the run, with a new baby in tow, and mostly strangers around either helping or attempting to hurt her. A key angle to take was keeping everything within Jean’s point of view and approaching the script in a manner that holds back information in ways that make sense. That sense of minimalism causes confusion and suspense to take hold effectively, even as Jean finds herself becoming more assured in handling her desperate situation.

Nine Days

Edson Oda’s Nine Days certainly takes on new meaning, as it concerns a man isolated from everyone, holding one on one interviews with human souls who aspire to go on to bigger things. New layers aside, there is a lot of creativity on display in terms of the original concept and presentation of this fantastical drama. Strong work from Winston Duke, Benedict Wong, Zazie Beetz, and Tony Hale certainly plays well in the film’s favor. In particular, Duke puts so much into his performance, as he creates such a complex character full of life, regrets, knowledge, judgment, and more. That said, I couldn’t help but feel a bit distant from what wants to be more of a profound experience.

Sound of Metal

The screenplay from Abraham Marder and director Darius Marder builds on such a strong concept. What if a metal band drummer suddenly lost his hearing? Adding to this tragic development, Riz Ahmed’s Ruben is also a former addict, with the things he loves in life now being taken away from him. The resulting film does a terrific job of taking this story to heart and letting Ahmed truly inhabit this character. Adding a deaf community allows the film to take a new dimension in further developing the story and balancing the character dynamics in intriguing ways. Plus, the respect given to the deaf by incorporating American Sign Language adds a level of authenticity and creates a unique environment for the film to work with, further enhancing this emotional story.

Uncle Frank

Writer/director Alan Ball is not reinventing anything with Uncle Frank, but he does right by Paul Bettany as the titular character. Bettany is Frank, a gay man in the 1970s who has to confront his past following the death of his father (Stephen Root). To do this, he must head back home from New York to the south, where he’s joined by his niece (Sophia Lillis) and his love (a great Peter Macdissi). While there is a clear attempt at playing to the heart, the infusion of modern sensibilities in how characters relate to each other is hard to look past. The film’s low stakes are not unexpected, but there’s only so much challenge to look at as well, meaning it’s up to the solid cast (which also includes Steve Zahn, Judy Greer, Lois Smith, and Margo Martindale) to hold it all together. They manage too, and Bettany shines, but there’s only so much value to find here.

***

Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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